In the most serious attack yet this year by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), at least 29 soldiers were injured by a roadside bomb in the eastern department of Arauca.
This department, a stronghold for leftist guerrilla groups due to its oil wealth and proximity with the Venezuelan border, is still a long ways from being controlled by the Colombian security forces, and may become a top priority for the armed forces this year.
Thursday morning, at least 29 soldiers were wounded after their military convoy hit a field of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on a road between the municipalities of Puerto Rondon and Tame. According to national newspaper El Tiempo, the soldiers of the18th Brigade were travelling towards a possible car bomb, with hindsight the bait for the ambush, when the military convoy hit the roadside explosives. The FARC’s 10th Front, active in the area, has a long history of using using explosives to target the security forces: bombs in bicycle, cars, entire houses and even strapped to donkeys.
Arauca has been an area of concern for Colombian authorities for some time. The FARC and the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional – ELN) are especially active here, regularly carrying out ambushes against the security forces.
President Juan Manuel Santos attended an emergency security council in Arauca the day of the attacks, and said that he will pressure Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to better implement security cooperation between Arauca and the neighboring Venezuelan state of Apure, where the FARC are also known to have presence.
Border security is an especially sensitive issue in Arauca.
“Venezuela’s border is totally invaded by FARC and ELN guerrillas,” Araucan governor Luis Eduardo Ataya told Colombian radio station Caracol on 18 January. “Colombian citizens are afraid of going into Venezuela because we might be kidnapped.”
According to Ataya, Arauca is seeing an increase in “express” kidnappings, in which guerrillas or common delinquents hold their hostages in Venezuelan territory while demanding ransoms ranging between five and fifteen million pesos (about US$2,600 and US$8,000).
In one recent case last November, the ELN allegedly kidnapped two women, one related to the municipal council president, and the other to the mayor of Saravena. The hostages were taken by boat into Venezuelan territory, but were later rescued by the Colombian and Venezuelan security forces.
Kidnappings are also reported frequently from the municipalities of Santa Barbara de Arauca and Tame, where the FARC reportedly kidnapped a rancher on January 22 (he was later rescued by the army). While the national tendency has been a signficant reduction in kidnappings, Arauca is still registering significant numbers with more than 29 cases registered last year.
Under an agreement hashed out by the Defense Ministers from Colombia and Venezuela in mid-January, the two countries are supposed to begin a new era of cooperation in border security, intended to combat drug trafficking, as well as attacks by the FARC or ELN. Arauca shares over 300 km of border with Apure, and the two departments have levels of extortion and kidnapping much higher than the national averages.
The security dynamics in Arauca are also highly dependent on the region’s oil trade. The Caño Limon-Coveñas pipeline has been the target of frequent attacks by the FARC and ELN, the most recent incident registered on January 10. Consequently, military units like the 18th Brigade, based in Arauca, must dedicate most of their resources to protecting oil infrastructure, leaving other parts of the department exposed.